What's Love Got to do With It?
The contemporary American "you do you, I'll do me" attitude has corrupted romance. For most people, the individualistic, or self-centric, lens we Americans view all aspects of life through has turned love from a noble mission into a self-seeking, ego-boosting conquest.
“And the final rose goes to...Becca!” The American reality television show The Bachelor has captivated audiences for nearly twenty years, and the fervor does not seem to be going away anytime soon. Obsession with romance is not a novel notion, however. Throughout time, literary works have been created with romance as the focal point of a big percentage of them. Unfortunately, the contemporary American “you do you, I’ll do me” attitude has corrupted romance; for most people, the individualistic, or self-centric, lens we Americans view all aspects of life through has turned love from a noble mission into a self-seeking, ego-boosting conquest.
Throughout history — as reflected in literature — romance has been about complete dedication to another: one’s beloved. The “knight in shining armor” would sacrifice his life for the “damsel in distress;” for most, nobility and chivalry come to mind when thinking about true romance. Somewhere between “then” and “now,” we Americans decided that we must look out for ourselves. In the age of self-help gurus, we are told that happiness should never come from the outside, be it people or things; happiness is independent of the outside world. If one is deemed to rely too much on outside factors, they are labeled as a co-dependent, given a diagnosis. If something about a love interest does not jell well with us or threatens our independence, it is marked as a “red flag” or “deal-breaker.” In his book, Civilization and its Discontents, legendary psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud predicted something like this when he writes, “[w]e are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our own body, which is doomed to decay and dissolution...from the external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction; and finally from our relations to other men” (24). Freud believed most people’s suffering comes from sources outside the self, and in a society seemingly obsessed with Freud’s ideas of psychology (i.e. the Oedpial complex, talk therapy), it makes sense that people would be enamored with the idea that self-improvement techniques can develop a sort of impenetrable self.
Individualism, as practiced in American society, regards the self as priority number one. Minimizing vulnerability and maximizing success over other individuals is valued in popular culture; subjugating one’s desires to a lover’s is not. Perhaps this is why Freud recommends insulating oneself from other people; he writes, “[i]t is that we are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or its love” (29). The idea of protecting oneself from pain is not a bad one, but it seems that American society has become so averse to dissatisfaction that there is no tolerance for it, especially in a romantic relationship. The belief is that Americans deserve to be happy and anyone or thing that comes in between a person and satisfaction must be eliminated. This, coupled with the idea of self-preservation, is a potential contributing factor the divorce rate in the U.S. has skyrocketed over the last few decades. It could also explain why dating competition shows are so prolific; they depict the epitome of easily discarding another who does not fit a set of ideals or upsets one’s self-image.
The argument that external circumstances bring suffering is not without merit, but the paradox in American society is that, although individualism is highly valued and being affected by others’ opinions is frowned upon, the opinions of others on social media are a driving force for many. Conflicting schools of thought are cherry-picked to formulate a set of ideals that arguably brings about the dissatisfaction it is trying to prevent. Americans are living out an idea that Freud would applaud: self-will. As defined by Merriam-Webster , self-will is “the stubborn or willful adherence to one’s own desires or ideas” (“Self-will”). Since Americans value the self so highly, other people can be viewed as commodities, accessories, or vehicles for self-validation. In their scholarly journal article, “Who Am I in it for? Interpersonal Goals and Secure Base Support,” researchers Benjamin W. Hadden and C. Raymond Knee detail the link between motives romantic partners have in a relationship and the quality of the relationship. The first type of goal described aligns with self-preservation. Hadden and Knee stipulate that “[s]elf-image goals in relationships emerge from a sense of insecurity in how one is perceived by others, and there are intentions to get others to acknowledge an idealized image of oneself, or to obtain something for oneself” (677). Consuming oneself with what others think as well as what one wants, needs or desires out of others does not come from a place of happiness. Take, for example, gender-reveal parties. Prior to social media, revealing a fetus’ gender via a photo-documented soirée would have seemed asinine. Presently, however, many Americans’ social media feeds are swamped with photos of pink sponge-cakes, blue-glitter-emitting baseballs, or perhaps some creative way to let the world know a couple is having twins. The parties are hosted mainly to be documented on social media because of the recognition the poster will feel by way of “likes” and comments; the expecting couple is seeking to boost their public image. Ego-fluffing may bring immediate gratification, but it does not maintain satisfaction as the post moves down one’s friends’ newsfeeds.
One of the ways to avoid such suffering and gain happiness proposed by Freud is to isolate oneself from other people consciously, and in doing so, one will achieve the “happiness of quietness” (24). In a sense, roadblocks to happiness are caused mainly by other people and situations. Since, in Freud’s world, external factors are gateways to suffering, then it is only natural that the path to happiness outlined by him consists of “an unrestricted satisfaction of every need” (24). There is that idea of self-will. He also states that “[t]he feeling of happiness derived from the satisfaction of a wild instinctual impulse untamed by the ego is incomparably more intense than that derived from sating an instinct that has been tamed” (26). Freud’s idea of happiness is that the world impedes it outside oneself; the only way to combat this is by fulfilling impulsive desires and insulating oneself from external influences. Satisfaction is influenced in no small degree by outside factors, so, becoming driven by self-will will near guarantee happiness. Alternative views, however, that argue happiness is independent of one’s desires.
One of the most well-known proponents of the idea that external circumstances do not determine one’s internal world, Viktor Frankl, gained much of his insight while interred at four different concentration camps under the Nazi regime, which he documented in his book Man’s Search For Meaning. His theory on happiness seems, in many aspects, opposed to Freud’s; Frankl writes, “happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen...you have to let it happen by not caring about it” (XV). Where Freud says following one’s instincts and chasing pleasure will bring about happiness, Frankl says that an intentional pursuit of happiness will cause it to elude one. Happiness comes from the search for and attainment of meaning and the foregoing of one’s personal needs. Frankl was imprisoned based on his religion, yet he still managed to maintain sanity and relative happiness; “[m]an can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress” (65). The conditions he is writing about are the deplorable living conditions of Nazi concentration camps, as well as the despicable treatment of the prisoners by guards and even other prisoners. How Frankl was able to find meaning and happiness in such horrific conditions baffled many of his fellow prisoners, but he argues that it is something innate in humanity; Frankl writes, “[t]his striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man” (99). This is easier said than done, many would argue. Finding purpose by getting outside of the self may seem counterintuitive. However, it is precisely this practice that can help lead to better relational satisfaction as well as personal fulfillment.
A more altruistic type of goal partners can have in a relationship may help a person to get out of their own self. Hadden & Knee compare the selfish self-image goals to this benevolent type of goal. They note that, in high-quality romantic relationships, partners encourage “personal growth, exploration, and goal strivings,” in addition to the more widely-accepted notion of understanding a partner’s emotions (Hadden & Knee 675). In compassionate goals, “care and concern for one’s partner’s well-being without a desired outcome for oneself” is expressed as is the “want to be a constructive force for their partners and [the] want to avoid harming them” (677). Regardless of one’s desires, those with compassionate goals in a relationship recognize that in healthy, loving relationships, one’s partner’s needs are put before one’s own. Encouragement, availability, and a relatively small amount of interference in the partner’s activities are all positively correlated with high relational satisfaction as well as compassionate goals (Hadden & Knee 680). Ideally, if both partners practice this, then each person is satisfied and fulfilled; happiness is achieved. This can be tied to the notions of nobility and chivalry, wherein the self is forgone, and the needs of one’s beloved are the main focus. Compassionate goals also relate to Frankl’s idea of finding one’s meaning outside of the self and in one’s love for another human: “being human always points, and is directed to something, or someone, other than oneself…[t]he more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself,” and it is in that actualization that a person can find meaning and happiness (110-1). Practicing compassionate goals and living an individualistic lifestyle are incompatible, perhaps explaining why contemporary American society is not conducive to romance.
What used to be depicted as knights rescuing trapped princesses in towers guarded by dragons is now portrayed as thirty drunk twenty-something women fighting for the affection of an overly muscular, midwestern hunk. Love is not this. It is not going on The Bachelor to make oneself appear better than other potential suitors to win a rose and get into a four-month marriage. It is not obsessing over what others think of oneself. The idea that protecting the self above all else has led our American society to a place where dating apps are abundant, and people move through potential love interests more quickly than ever before. Americans need to realize that we all cannot be the center of the universe. We each have an individual purpose, and it is not a self-serving one. Becoming more altruistic and less selfish will no doubt lead to a society in which we all love a little more, fight a little less, and open our eyes to a whole new way of life.
Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning . Boston, Beacon Press, 2006. Print.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents . New York, W.W. Norton, 1962. Print.
Hadden, Benjamin W., and C. Raymond Knee. “Who Am I in It for? Interpersonal Goals and Secure Base Support.” Self and Identity , vol. 14, no. 6, 2015, pp. 675–691., doi:10.1080/15298868.2015.1062796.
"Self-will." Merriam-Webster.com . Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2018.